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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

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The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion . . . is to inspire cleansing awe. What makes good drama? And why does drama matter in an age that is awash in information and entertainment? David Mamet, one of our greatest living playwrights, tackles these questions with bracing directness and aphoristic authority. He believes that the tendency to dramatize is essential to human nature, that we create drama out of everything from today’s weather to next year’s elections. But the highest expression of this drive remains the theater.
         With a cultural range that encompasses Shakespeare, Bretcht, and Ibsen, Death of a Salesman and Bad Day at Black Rock, Mamet shows us how to distinguish true drama from its false variants. He considers the impossibly difficult progression between one act and the next and the mysterious function of the soliloquy. The result, in Three Uses of the Knife, is an electrifying treatise on the playwright’s art that is also a strikingly original work of moral and aesthetic philosophy. 

Playwright David Mamet’s three lectures at Columbia University are ostensibly about issues of dramatic structure, but as they unfold, and Mamet continually explores the relationship between dramatic structure and the lives we live, much broader concerns are revealed. Here, for example, is Mamet on political propaganda:

It is … essential to the healthy political campaign that the issues be largely or perhaps totally symbolic–i.e., non-quantifiable. Peace With Honor, Communists in the State Department, Supply Side Economics, Recapture the Dream, Bring Back the Pride–these are the stuff of pageant. They are not social goals; they are, as Alfred Hitchcock told us, the MacGuffin…. The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be…. A loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal.

Although occasionally academic, the overall tone of the lectures is consistent with Mamet’s no-nonsense manner of speech. He has no time for obfuscation and little time for repetition, save when he must absolutely employ it for emphasis. He is passionate about good theater, and passionate about the truth. 3 Uses of the Knife makes an excellent companion piece to his True and False, which addressed similar philosophical matters in the form of advice on the actor’s craft.

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